HOUSTON (CN) — With around half of Houston’s residents yet to fill out the census, the City Council approved $175,000 on Wednesday to pay for billboards, text message, email and phone campaigns to reach holdouts, a move one councilman said is throwing more money down the drain of a failed outreach effort.
The stakes are huge for the Bayou City. For each 1% of residents not counted, the city stands to lose $250 million in federal funds, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner. About 55% of residents have completed the census – at that rate, Houston would be out $11.25 billion.
“This is the most diverse city in the United States. We have people who come from every walk of life. It would be hurtful for all of us if that diversity is not reflected in our census response,” Turner said Wednesday afternoon in a webinar sponsored by the nonprofit India House Houston.
“Be an ambassador of one, go out and ask other people have you responded to the census and if they haven’t, ask them to and ask them why they haven’t done it,” Turner added.
The government does the census every 10 years and it is critical for cities to get accurate head counts because federal funds for schools, hospitals, Medicare and Medicaid, highway maintenance, housing assistance and preschool programs are allocated based on population.
Demographers have predicted Houston’s population could overtake Chicago’s by 2025, advancing it to the third largest behind New York and Los Angeles.
“But if we stop right now and only 55% of Houstonians respond to the census we are not going to overtake anybody,” Turner said.
The City Council voted 14-2 to pay another $175,000 to a census outreach contractor, adding to the $1.27 million it has already received for public relations work focused on coaxing out “hard-to-count populations” such as undocumented immigrants and non-English speakers. Officials in surrounding Harris County have kicked in another $4 million for the census.
City Councilman Greg Travis, a Republican, voted against the re-up.
The Trump administration recently moved the census completion deadline up a month to Sept. 30, and Travis said it is too late to get the word out on billboards.
“Now mind you, billboards don’t just come up tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve got about 45 days. This is crunch time for us. By the time you find locations for the billboards, purchase access to the billboards, print the material, put it up on the billboards, you’re talking two weeks.”
Travis recommended direct marketing in which census-info flyers would be placed in apartment doors.
“We need to get these people counted. I don’t think this money is going to do it. I think it will just be more money down the drain,” he said.
Houston’s census response rate is about 10% behind the national average of 64%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among states, Minnesota’s 73.1% response rate leads, while Texas is near the bottom at 59.2%.
Mayor Turner, a Democrat, blamed Houston’s census difficulties in part on Texas’ Republican-majority Legislature.
“Why are we behind nationally?” he said. “One of reasons is because Texas is one of the few states that did not put any dollars into the census program. Texas appropriated zero dollars to the census and when you look at most states, their states put in dollars along with their local governments.”
California, meanwhile, has allocated $154 million for census outreach.
Turner said the extra $175,000 to try to boost the census count is well worth it given each respondent equates to $1,000 to $1,500 in federal funds each year for the next 10 years.
Council member Robert Gallegos said President Trump’s efforts to put a citizenship question on the census, which the U.S. Supreme Court nixed, has put fear in immigrant communities.
“That’s why our numbers are down,” he said in the meeting conducted via videoconference software.
Gallegos said he is working with the city’s public works department to see if it can place census-info inserts in water bills, one side in English, the other in Spanish, listing the nine questions asked on the census so people can understand there’s nothing to fear.
Council member Edward Pollard suggested bringing iPads to informational events so people can fill out the census then and there.
The census deadline could be moved back to Oct. 30 because of litigation challenging the shortened timeline.
Harris County, the state’s largest by population, this week filed an amicus brief in support of a federal lawsuit claiming the shortened timeline is unconstitutional because it will result in an inaccurate count.